Emory Law Professor Howard Abrams submitted an application to become the next Dean of Emory Law School, and boy did he call out the school and legal academia for the whole backwards process of choosing deans and running law schools. Emory Law has had a rocky relationship with its students over the past few years, and Professor Abrams wants it to stop. He wants Emory to get better. He wants law schools to get back to providing value to the students instead of just taking their money.
And, as a result, he probably has no chance of actually getting the deanship…
Abrams starts his three-page law dean application with the classic “I do not want to be the next dean of the Emory Law School. And that may be my strongest qualification.” But it doesn’t take long before he’s slamming the way the law school treats its customers, the students:
I believe two things concerning administration of the Emory Law School: (1) the faculty should run the Law School; and (2) the Law School should be run for the benefit of the students. Currently, neither of those is true though not out of deliberated decision nor meanness of spirit. Rather, the law school has acceded to a series of deans who (out of the best of intentions) have expanded their role at the expense of the faculty. And the goals of the Law School have never been identified with sufficient precision.
I believe the goal of the Emory Law School should be to help our students lead happy and productive lives and to contribute to their local communities and to the greater society. To do this, we need to give them the tools to succeed after law school however they define success, we must maximize the opportunities for them to realize their dreams, and we must find new ways of supporting our students whose dreams take longer to realize.
A law school run for the benefit of students? Dear God man, are you mad? Next you’ll be suggesting that the school’s U.S. News ranking isn’t the single most important factor to any well-functioning law school:
For too long, the Emory Law School has emphasized appearance over substance. I understand this emphasis: we have been told that a dean’s tenure is tied to the US News and World Report rankings, and so a dean who believes he can improve the school must first ensure he remains in a position to do so. One advantage of shifting from a bureaucratic model of administration to a faculty-run model is to prevent decanal retention policy from driving law school strategy.
I really wish that line would show up in the Emory prospective student brochures: “Here at Emory, we value appearance over substance and our dean’s job security is directly tied to our U.S. News rank.” I mean, nobody is going to seriously dispute the truthfulness of that statement, right?
The thing is that now Emory leaders have a choice: they can keep going down the same, flawed path they and a bunch of other law schools have been trying for years, or they can go with a dean who has some ideas about how to bring law schools back to the basics of helping students.
It’s not like all of Abrams’s ideas are radical. They’re just student-focused:
Regardless of what our students do and who they may advise, the world now requires an entrepreneurial approach in all aspects of commerce. We need to develop that spirit in ourselves; we need to help foster it in our students. We need a small business clinic. We need to better understand what our students do after graduation, and then we need to help them do it.
We need to teach more. Law faculties have used the US News and World Report rankings as justification for moving significant resources out of classrooms and into faculty offices: only faculty scholarship, we are told, will increase our peer reputational ranking. But as we all know, while the best legal scholarship really is very good, most legal scholarship (because publication decisions and editing are done by second-year students) is not good and rarely is read. Producing innovative courses and teaching methods likely will improve our reputation as much as the publication of one or two or three journal articles that are of interest only to other academics and often not even to them. Innovation in the classroom certainly will benefit our students.
But I know why Abrams won’t get the job. Abrams is willing to put his money, and Emory’s money, where his mouth is:
And I think we need to change our financial aid program dramatically. I would shift most or all financial aid into student loans with interest deferred until graduation and with reduction of interest and principal payments for up to five years depending on post-graduation income. That is, those of our students who seek and achieve immediate financial success can afford to bear the full cost of their legal education. But those students who have other goals or whose goals cannot immediately be achieved should have the burden of their debt reduced for a reasonable period. This has the added benefit of tying the Law School’s economic interest to that of its students: if the students cannot find jobs, the school does not get paid.
If the students can’t find jobs, the school doesn’t get paid? Now that is crazy talk. Why would a law school adopt a business model that has risk over one that is guaranteed to work so long as the flow of incoming lemmings remains strong? As we’ve seen time and time again, university presidents and administrators are not often motivated by a sense of responsibility to their students. Emory doesn’t have to tie its financial success to that of its students, and there’s no reason to think they will do so willingly.
Howard Abrams’s dean application is probably dead in the water. But that doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. When Emory hires, whoever, to do exactly the same kind of disingenuous crap as the last guy, they won’t be able to say they had no other options.
You can read Abrams’s full letter on the next page. It’s worth the read; it should be the model for any person who is applying for dean of a law school who is committed to something other than taking advantage of gullible law students.